After giving the Brother MFC-5890CN a not-so-great review, we weren't breaking down doors with excitement over the step-down model. We expected another unstylish device marred by mechanical imperfections and unsuitable for any environment where productivity is a factor. Fortunately for Brother, this $130 all-in-one is actually a better printer than its pricier cousin. Higher-quality prints, a 3.3-inch wide-screen LCD for light photo editing and scrolling through menus, and a low cost to print put it in the same class as the Canon Pixma MX330 or the HP Officejet J4680, even though the Brother's print speeds still can't keep up with the competition. If you're hungry for extra features like Wi-Fi and convert-to-text, check out the MFC-5890CN, but we're still calling the Canon MX330 the most versatile and high-quality all-in-one printer for less than $150.
We don't usually have much to say about the design of most Brother printers, but the MFC-490CW actually makes an effort to stand out. The chassis is small and maneuverable at 15.4 inches wide by 10 inches deep by 18.1 inches tall. After installing the parts, the MFC-490CW is still much less obtrusive than the 5890CN; you shouldn't have a problem fitting this into your workspace without clutter.
The control panel and the autodocument feeder are trimmed in a glossy, black finish that looks extra professional next to the matte, gray side paneling. The control panel in the center of the small multifunction pad has the mushy rubber buttons that we complained about on the MFC-5890CN, but the directional pad on this one gets the shiny, silver, plastic treatment that actually makes it easier to maneuver around the menus on the large 3.3-inch color LCD screen. The screen also swivels up and down at incremental notches to give you a variety of viewing angles.
Just to the left of the display, you'll see a complete numerical keypad, the on/off button, as well as redial and hook buttons for the standalone fax functions. Three function buttons for fax, scan, and copy sit just to the right of the LCD, with a fourth button labeled "photo capture" that opens a folder to display images on digital memory cards that you insert into the media reader about halfway down the front face of the printer. Acceptable formats include Compact Flash, SD, Memory Stick, and xD slots, and there's a PictBridge USB port as well to connect a digital camera directly.
The large drawer that pulls from the bottom of the device holds blank sheets of paper, and the top doubles as a landing on which finished prints come to rest. The glaring issue here is that the drawer sits flush in the printer and doesn't extend far enough out of the device, making it difficult to grab outbound prints from the output cavern. Brother forces you to squeeze your hand into this awkward, covered cave to retrieve smaller prints, so potential buyers with larger-than-average mitts should take this into consideration.
Like many of the other Brother printers, we still have complaints about the internal cable guide on the MFC-490CW; while the power port is easy to access on the left side of the rear panel, the USB and Ethernet ports sit inside the printer. For some reason, Brother forces you to open up the machine, prop up the lid with a plastic arm (similar to the arm on the hood of a car engine), snake the USB cable (not included in the box) through a small, plastic guide, and plug it directly into the internal components. Not only is this hassle unique to Brother, you also wind up losing more than a foot of cable slack as a result of the extensive internal looping. It feels counterintuitive to lift up the lid and expose the print head to serve no other purpose other than to plug in the USB cord. Thankfully, you can connect the printer to a desktop without wires at all using the built-in 802.11b/g wireless print server and the simple instructions on the driver.
The MFC-490CW uses a four-cartridge system with individual tanks for black, cyan, magenta, and yellow that load into the front bay. Brother offers standard- and high-yield cartridges on its Web site. However, we'll use the high-capacity price points and page yields for a cost-per-page analysis: color cartridges cost $17 for 750 pages and a black cartridge that'll last approximately 900 pages costs $32, according to Brother, which factors out to 2.2 cents per page of color and 3.5 cents for black. Those prices are just shy of the average cost to print on a $150 printer, but the Canon Pixma MX330 offers better print quality for the same price.
The drivers on the MFC-490CW installation disc give you the option to adjust the printer's quality settings from normal to fine, fast, or fast normal. In addition, you get a box to check natural versus vivid photo prints, and a unique "True2life" color enhancement tool with customizable changes to color density, white balance, contrast, brightness, and other settings. Finally, the driver also installs a status monitor that pops up during job processing to monitor ink cartridge levels and quality control, but it doesn't indicate the status of the spooling or the job progress.
Brother also gives you the option to install a third-party imaging application called "Paperport" by ScanSoft. This program lets you edit photos in a file-browsing setup similar to Apple's iPhoto, with basic photo-editing solutions for auto-enhancement, blemish erasing, and red-eye elimination. We played around with the software for awhile and enjoyed its simplicity compared with iPhoto. Don't expect editing quality on par with Adobe suites, however. Paperport is geared more for light users and amateur photographers with limited time and editing resources.